Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How do I use primary sources in my classroom?

To guide students through the process of analyzing primary sources, consider using primary source analysis sheets. For a thorough list of analysis sheets separated by media type, visit the University of Northern Colorado's Colorado Rural Partnership Analysis Tools. Additional primary source analysis sheets from the National Archives and Library of Congress assist in working with:

In addition, some instructional methods are particularly amenable to working with primary source documents. Examples include use of inquiry, primary source sets, scavenger hunts, found poems, life-in-a-box activities, gallery walks, sort it out activities, reading maps in sections, and zooming-in to pictures.

Inquiry Questions

Instructional Strategy Defined: Students answer higher-level thinking questions requiring they engage in artifact analysis. The goal of historical inquiry is to have students work with primary sources to think historically — doing what historians do.

Primary Source Sets

Instructional Strategy Defined: Primary source sets are collections of primary source artifacts that, when presented as a group, enable students to engage in historical inquiry.

Scavenger Hunts

Instructional Strategy Described: Ask students to engage in a scavenger hunt where they simply seek the types of resources available in the collection(s). This activity may require independent searching, or scaffolded, linear searches with a particular end-goal.

Found Poems

Instructional Strategy Described: Have students work with a single teacher-selected primary source document. Students review the document highlighting words that are important to them. They then cut out twenty of those words (of their choosing) that are the most meaningful for them. They then make a poem by arranging these words into their own creation.

Life in a Box

Instructional Strategy Described: Create a packet of six artifacts (with the artifacts scaffolded leading from more to less obscure), numbering each from one to six. Pass around each artifact one time at a time. Have students try to determine the name of the person in the box in the least number of artifacts.

Gallery Walks

Instructional Strategy Described: Find a collection of relevant primary sources including pictures, maps, and other documents. Separate students into groups and provide each group with a different inquiry question. Have students move from source to source collecting data relating to their question. Upon completing the browsing process, each group should work independently to analyze findings and prepare a response to their question. After completing the responses, allow each group to read their inquiry question and response. After all groups complete their presentations, have students discuss whether they might dispute some of the conclusions based on data uncovered by either their group or another group.

Sort It Out

Instructional Strategy Described: Provide approximately ten artifacts and have students start with a question (e.g., “How have resources and materials changed the way we live and travel?”). Using that question, have students separate the artifacts into categories. Students must determine category names while fitting each artifact into their self-selected categories.

Map Sections

Instructional Strategy Described: Download several maps and print them out on large paper. Cut the maps into several sections and provide small groups with one section each of the map and a map analysis sheet. Hide map sections with essential information (e.g., title, date). Have students analyze their map section and then have groups find other groups who have sections from the same map. Combined groups should then work together to continue their analysis (identifying more than they were able to identify in their smaller groups). Upon exhausting information accessible in the joint groups, have groups find the remaining part of their maps in the hidden location (e.g., outside of the classroom) and do final observations using the entire map.


Instructional Strategy Described: Choose one primary source picture and slowly reveal different parts of the picture asking students what they can deduce during each "reveal." Encourage lower-level questioning at the beginning and more evaluative questions upon showing the entire picture. You may begin with an overarching inquiry question they will consider throughout the process.


Useful places for finding primary sources about Nevada:

  1. Southern Nevada: The Boomtown Years: Good for mining and early Southern Nevada community resources
  2. Online Nevada Encyclopedia: Provides a broad range of topical information about the history and culture of the State of Nevada (including Native Peoples)
  3. Library of Congress—American Memory Collection: This site includes a wealth of resources throughout the history of the United States and pre-national era. There is some information on Nevada, but it is limited.

Sample Nevada Activities

During the second session of this module, we completed several activities. The worksheet that guided this set of activities is available here.
  • Cookie Geography: Using blue frosting, draw the river systems from the state on a cookie.
    • Recommended cookie recipe: 3 c flour, 1 c powdered sugar, 1T vanilla, 1.5 c butter; Place batter in bar pan about 3/4" thick; Bake 20 minutes at 325°F.
    • To prepare the cookie shape, cut the shape before and immediately after baking.
    • Recommended frosting recipe: 3 c Crisco, 2 lbs. powdered sugar, 2 T meringue powder, 2 T clear vanilla extract, 2 t clear butter extract, pinch of salt, ~4 T water (add slowly until desired consistency), gel food coloring (if using water-based food coloring, add before water to ensure proper consistency).
In addition, I recommend these lesson plans:

Example student projects from Mr. Colin Haas' fourth grade students (included as part of their Nevada Research Report and Presentation assignments).

Mormon Fort

Hoover Dam

Nevada Citizenship Awards

Some schools implement an annual Nevada Citizenship Awards Ceremony. Though all students in all fourth grade classes must master certain content (that which appears in the State Curricular Standards), some students achieve the award by successfully memorizing and completing the following:
  • Place all county names and county seats correctly on a map of Nevada;
  • Recite the names of all Nevada governors in order of office;
  • List all Nevada state symbols;
  • Sing the Nevada state song;
  • List the tribes of Native Peoples from Nevada's history and accurately place the territory of each on a map of the state;
  • Recite the preamble to the Nevada State Constitution; and,
  • Draw all major physical features on a map of the state.
The planner students receive at Heckethorn Elementary School lists the requirements for both the Nevada Citizenship and Great American Awards. See a sample below.
At an end-of-year ceremony, students and their families celebrate their accomplishments.
*Note: All files are in Word format for easy modification.

**Special thanks to Mr. Colin Haas and Mrs. Pearl Nagoshi for sharing this idea and their materials.